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Opera Review

Verdi’s La Traviata: A Subject for Our Own Age

by Megan Beets
April 2015

Giuseppe Verdi.

La Traviata
Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave
Conductor: Andrew Bisantz
Director: Lillian Groag

The Virginia Opera
March 22, 2015

Violetta: Cecilia Violetta Lopez
Alfredo: Rolando Sanz
Georgio Germont: Malcolm MacKenzie
Flora: Courtney Miller
Annina: Ashley Kerr
Gastone: Cullen Gandy
Baron Duphol: Andre Chiang
Marchese d’Obigny: Matthew Scollin
Dr. Grenville: Keith Brown
Giuseppe: Ben Werley
Flora’s Servant: Trevor Martin
Messenger: Adrian Smith

“A subject for our own age,” was Verdi’s description of what became his La Traviata in an 1853 letter to his friend Cesare De Sanctis. In fact, Verdi’s sharp portrayal of the degenerate popular culture of his age, especially among the “cultured” upper classes, was so incisive, that the censors of his time prevented the opera from being staged in contemporary dress, as Verdi intended.

Lucid Frame for Virginia Opera.

The Virginia Opera’s March 22nd performance of La Traviata in Fairfax, VA beautifully captured the power of Verdi’s portrait of the banality of his own society. The irony of the purity of emotion and depth of soul of Violetta, the fallen woman (la traviata), in contrast to the shallow façades of the “happy and virtuous ones” around her was presented clearly and compellingly. Cecilia Violetta Lopez was superb in the role of Violetta, and was able, with the help of Verdi’s beautiful music, to draw us deep into the real tragedy of the opera: that even the pure flame of Violetta’s love for Alfredo cannot save her from being consumed and discarded by the rot within society as a whole; a rot which she rejected, but all too late. This was drawn out very effectively in the long duet between Violetta (Lopez) and Georgio Germont (MacKenzie) in Act II, when Germont’s littleness and practicality stand out in stark contrast to the passion of Violetta—who has found a sense of goodness in the future for the first time.

Though he is popularly referred to as a Romantic opera composer, Verdi was firmly rooted in the Classical tradition of such as Friedrich Schiller and William Shakespeare, whom he greatly admired. As opposed to some of his contemporaries like Richard Wagner (to name a rather egregious example) or Giacomo Puccini, who perverted opera and music itself to overwhelm audiences with sheer emotional effect, Verdi saw the stage as a forum for educating and ennobling the population to confront their better selves.

For Europe during Verdi’s time, such ennoblement was desperately needed. Verdi was well-familiar with the failure of the French Revolution, about which Schiller commented that “a great moment has found a little people,” and the tragedy of the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which reimposed imperial control throughout Europe following the Napoleonic Wars. At the time that Verdi began La Traviata, Europe as a whole was going through a period of utter upheaval. In 1848, uprisings broke out throughout the Austrian Empire, and Europe more generally, including most major cities in Italy. The process of revolution held Verdi—who was a staunch supporter of republicanism—in rapt attention. The initial uprisings of 1848-49 were crushed under the military might of the Austrian, French and other armies, and in the aftermath, Napoleon III declared himself Emperor in France. It was during this precise time, in early 1852, while spending time in Paris, that Verdi attended a performance of Alexandre Dumas fils’s play, The Lady of the Camellias, upon which La Traviata would be based.

A Classical Portrait

Too often seen as merely a “tragic romance,” the story of La Traviata, in Verdi’s hands, is an incisive exposé of the rottenness within society as a whole—even pervading those who, according to all social convention and status, are the virtuous ones.

The opera opens in the Paris home of Violetta, a beautiful courtesan, who is throwing a fantastic all-night party full of champagne and revelry. Though clearly ill, weak from consumption, she urges her friends (barons and marquises among them) to have fun, for “everything in life is folly, except for pleasure.” The evening of empty amusements, no different from the one before, is punctuated by the attendance of Alfredo Germont, who confesses to Violetta that he’s admired and loved her for over a year. She laughs him off, telling him that she cannot love, only to be haunted by the thought of him, and of her own response to the prospect of genuine love, after her guests have left.

Lucid Frame for Virginia Opera.

Such a germ is then unfolded in the following acts, as Violetta decides to reject her empty life, which is slowly closing in on her, for her love of Alfredo. They move to the countryside, cut off contact with their former friends, and make a fresh start.

However, their hope of escaping the fate of society is short-lived. Alfredo’s father pays them a visit, while Alfredo is away, with the hopes of saving his family’s status in society by breaking off his son’s relationship with such a low-life woman. As Verdi quickly shows in the interaction between Violetta and Germont, it is the man of social stature, Germont, who pays no heed to the virtue of love, as it sits in front of him, while Violetta, the former courtesan, expresses the desperation, and then self-sacrifice of one who loves Alfredo deeply. She is persuaded by Germont to leave Alfredo, “for the good of the family,” and thus submits, once again, to a facet of the same empty culture from which she fled.

Malcolm MacKenzie was excellent in the role of Germont. Often played as conniving, or angry, MacKenzie’s Germont was rather a very stiff and practical man, who believed himself to be doing the right thing for the standing of his family in society, for the love of his son, and was tragically too shallow to know what he was about to do to Violetta.

In the wake of Violetta’s departure from her new life, Alfredo, hurt, flies into a fit of rage. Rolando Sanz’s portrayal of Alfredo as a bit more emotionally out of control, evening sobbing in the arms of his father, than perhaps is common worked excellently to give a sense of lingering immaturity to Alfredo, which only heightened the impact of Violetta’s more ennobled identity.

Alfredo, enraged, follows Violetta to Paris, where he finds her back in the jaws of the Parisian social scene. At the party, Verdi crafts a scene which puts the degeneration of society on full display, with everyone, from baron to courtesan, drinking, engaging in lewd antics, and gambling—which the incensed Alfredo fully throws himself into. The dark, gaudy scenery of the party, along with the costuming and choreography of the Virginia Opera’s production was well-crafted to enforce the suffocating emotional effect of degenerate Paris (on both Violetta and the audience), in contrast with the bright countryside in which Violetta attempted to find refuge.

When Alfredo finally insults and humiliates Violetta in the middle of the party, her already-fragile health is delivered a shock which, it is clear to the audience member, pushes her beyond the point of no return toward her final decline.

A Not-So-Distant Mirror

Lopez was superb in the final (and quite difficult) heart-wrenching scene, holding the stage nearly solo as Violetta grapples with her final hours. As she lies in bed, too weak to get up, her friends are heard rushing by outside as they hurry to the Paris carnival, bubbling with laughter and oblivious to the suffering one so nearby who used to be among them—and one wonders which one of them may next end up, discarded, in Violetta’s place?

When Alfredo and Germont rush in, having realized the tragedy of what they’ve done, with desperate hope that its not too late, they find an elated—and fading—Violetta. Their hope of her recovery is short lived, as she collapses in weakness. “To die, when now, at last, I might have ceased my weeping! Ah, it was but a dream, my credulous hope.” As she hands Alfred a small portrait of herself, she utters her final plea to him. “If some young girl in the flower of life should give her heart to you, marry her. I wish it. Then give her this portrait: Tell her it is the gift of one who, in heaven among the angels, prays for her and for you.”

With Violetta’s dramatic spoken—not sung—final lines just moments later, as death closed swiftly in, the stunned audience sat in silence for a few moments before erupting into vigorous applause. Many in the audience were clearly moved to tears by Violetta’s inability to escape from the tragedy of a rotten culture, despite her own rejection of it.

One must wonder, however: In the midst of today’s political crisis (with much, much more at stake than during Verdi’s time), whether the Washington D.C. area audience which was so moved by the Virginia Opera’s superb production, will permit that sense of tragedy to prick their consciences about their own culture—our own age—before we permit the best virtues of human nature to be consumed in a dark age of our own making; one with tragic consequences for mankind.